Hugh McQuaid Photo

James Goolsby, one of about a dozen Hartford-area fast food workers to strike Thursday in a nationwide wage protest, said it was a little bit surreal to be joined by a crowd of supporters demonstrating inside the Subway restaurant where he works.

Beginning early Thursday morning, workers from McDonalds, Subway, Dunkin Donuts, Burger King, and other fast food establishments left work to protest their low wages. Similar demonstrations were taking place Thursday in cities from Boston to Los Angeles in what was expected to be the largest nationwide walkout so far.

Goolsby is a 24-year-old Hartford resident who said he’s worked for Subway for the last seven years. He decided to go on strike Thursday from the Asylum Street shop where he works because he earns only $9 an hour.

“When you’re a customer, you don’t think about it. It’s cheap food. ‘Five dollar footlong’ For four dollars you get a sandwich and a drink. That’s all it is. I want people to know that it’s about the workers, not about the big corporations, the big bosses. They make billions,” he said.

Although he works 40 hours a week, Goolsby said that after taxes he brings home between $200 and $250 a week. With his first son on the way, he said he is concerned about how he is going to make ends meet.

“I don’t want to try to raise a kid struggling. My mom raised five kids by herself. I’m not trying to go through the struggles she went through,” he said.

Goolsby said he feels as if he is at a breaking point, like he could “walk out at any minute” and not look back.

“When you look at it — it’s a bad thing but, you’ve got dudes standing outside selling drugs making more than what I’m bringing home. I’m here six days a week, one day off a week, and I’m bringing home not even $300 — I just feel it’s a waste of my time,” he said.

Goolsby was joined by a crowd of union supporters as well as state Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, and the Rev. A.J. Johnson of Hartford’s Urban Hope Refuge Church. They marched right into the Subway.

Johnson and Ritter assured the people working in the restaurant that laws protected their right to demonstrate. 

“You cannot retaliate against workers for speaking out, exercising their constitutionally protected rights,” Ritter said. “. . . We are all here to tell you that if they do retaliate against you . . . we are all here to protect you because it’s illegal.”

After a few minutes inside the Subway the group left, chanting “We’ll be back.” Still, Goolsby said he was a little worried about what ramifications his act of protest may have on his employment status with Subway.

“There’s a lot of support here. But I think I’m a little nervous about what’s going to happen when I come back, say a month, two months from now, once everyone’s gone,” he said.

On the same day as the protest, the public policy nonprofit Connecticut Voices For Children released an annual report indicating that recent job growth in Connecticut has occurred in the lowest-paid sector of the workforce.

The state added around 15,655 new jobs from 2011-12 but 10,050 of them were in the health care, retail, and accommodations and food services sectors, the report said. For every job lost in the higher-paying sectors like finance and insurance, 2.5 were added in food services, it said.

The Voices report focused primarily on soaring unemployment rates among the state’s younger workers. During a conference call with reporters, the authors said they did not have a position on Thursday’s walkout, but said it is not just young people who are employed in Connecticut’s low-wage jobs.

“Most young people work in low-wage jobs. That doesn’t mean that most low-wage jobs are filled by young people,” Orlando Rodriguez, a senior policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children, said.

Although the number of retail jobs has increased in recent years, Rodriguez said the number of younger workers employed has dropped.

“What could be happening is a ‘crowding-out’ of the younger population by older workers who before had a middle-income job. They lost it and now the only opportunity for them is to go to retail or food service,” he said.

The workers striking across the country Thursday are seeking in part to have the federal minimum wage increased to $15 an hour. The Connecticut legislature approved a bill this year to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9 an hour over the next two years. It is currently $8.25 an hour.

Rodriguez called the minimum wage debate a “red herring.”

“We’re not going to grow the state’s economy by creating more minimum wage jobs. That’s really not where this conversation should be. We should be talking about creating middle class jobs,” he said.